Thursday, April 21, 2016

First night's sleep

I would be the last person to link one-night stands with new research (Brown University) indicating that only half of our brain getting a good night's rest. More seriously, it turns out that our left brain seems to be more awake than the right side when we sleep in unfamiliar surroundings.

The finding, reported Thursday in the journal Current Biology, helps explain why people tend to feel tired after sleeping in a new place. And it suggests people have something in common with birds and sea mammals, which frequently put half their brain to sleep while the other half remains on guard.
Sleep researchers discovered the "first-night effect" decades ago, when they began studying people in sleep labs. The first night in a lab, a person's sleep is usually so bad that researchers simply toss out any data they collect.

The team measured something called slow-wave activity, which appears during deep sleep. And they found that during a student's first night in the lab, slow wave activity was greater in certain areas of the right hemisphere than in the corresponding areas of the left hemisphere. After the first night, though, the difference went away.

It’s possible that this is a survival trait - when we're sleeping in a new environment and we don't know how many predators are around. It would make sense to keep half the brain more alert and more responsive to bumps in the night.

The research is indicating that this brain response is involuntary and there's nothing people can do to prevent it.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Moving toward suicide test

According to a small study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland and published in The American Journal of Psychiatry, they have identified a chemical change in a single gene that is common in people who attempt or commit suicide. The research has identified a gene mutation that could lead to a blood test to predict risk.

Such a test is years away from being widely available to the public. For now, researchers say they have found a chemical change in a single gene, called SKA2, which is linked to how the brain responds to stress hormones.

This gene "plays a significant role in turning what might otherwise be an unremarkable reaction to the strain of everyday life into suicidal thoughts and behaviours.” Researchers found it by examining brain samples from people who had killed themselves, and found that levels of SKA2 were significantly reduced compared to healthy people. 

They also tested blood samples from 325 people in a prevention study at JHU and found that changes in the gene could predict with 80 per cent certainty those who were experiencing suicidal thoughts or who had attempted suicide. Among certain groups, the accuracy of the test was even higher. "Those with more severe risk of suicide were predicted with 90 per cent accuracy," said the study. "In the youngest data set, they were able to identify with 96 per cent accuracy whether or not a participant had attempted suicide, based on blood test results."

The SKA2 gene works to inhibit negative thoughts and control impulsive actions. When there isn't enough of it, or it is altered, the brain releases abnormal levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. Previous studies have shown that people who try to kill themselves, or who commit suicide, have an abnormal cortisol release. More research is needed to determine if a blood test could predict suicide in a larger group of people.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Psychological Stress and Social Media Use

Whilst technology has been, by in large, seen a great enabler of productivity, efficacy and the backbone of current and future information bearing societies - technology has also proven to be a significant contributor of stress and anxiety.

More information is flowing into our lives; in many cases a decrement, requiring prompt attention, interrupting and distracting us from the activity on hand. Our insatiable need to track what friends and foes are doing and to monitor raises and falls in status is greater now than ever in the history of man’s existence. There is more social pressure now to disclose personal information and allow these technologies to takeover our lives, creating time and social pressures that put us at risk for the negative physical and psychological health effects that can result from stress.
Stress might come from maintaining a large network of Facebook friends, feeling jealous of their well-documented and well-appointed lives, the demands of replying to text messages, the addictive allure of photos of foods on our favourite social networks of choice.
A recent study (Pew Research Center Internet, Science & Tech, Jan 15, 2015) explored the relationship between a variety of digital technology uses and psychological stress. People were asked to respond to an established measure of stress - the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS). The PSS consists of ten questions and measures the degree to which individuals feel that their lives are overloaded, unpredictable and uncontrollable.
It turns out that the average American adult scored 10.2 out of 30 on the PSS. One of the starkest contrasts in the survey was between the level of reported stress experienced by men and women. On average, women report experiencing significantly higher levels of stress than men. Men reported stress levels that were 7% lower than for women. There are other demographic characteristics that are related to stress. On average, older adults, and those who are employed tend to have less stress.
In the survey, respondents were asked about their use of social networking sites. People were asked about the frequency with which they use different social media platforms, such as Facebook (used by 71% of internet users in this sample), Twitter (used by 18% of internet users), Instagram (17%) and LinkedIn (22%).
Given the popularity of Facebook, people were also asked very specific questions about users’ networks and what people do on that platform:
Number of friends (the average was 329),
Frequency of status updates (the average was 8 times per month)
Frequency of “Liking” other people’s content (the average was 34 times per month)
Frequency of commenting (the average was 22 times per month)
How often they send private messages (the average was 15 times per month)

Interestingly the frequency of internet and social media use has no direct relationship to stress in men. For women, the use of some technologies is tied to lower stress. For men, there is no relationship between psychological stress and frequent use of social media, mobile phones, or the internet more broadly. Men who use these technologies report similar levels of stress when compared with non-users.
For women, there is evidence that technology use is tied to modestly lower levels of stress. Specifically, the more pictures women share through their mobile phones, the more emails they send and receive, and the more frequently they use Twitter, the lower their reported stress. However, with the exception of Twitter, for the average person, the relationship between stress and these technologies is relatively small.

From this survey the researchers were not able to definitively determine why frequent uses of some technologies are related to lower levels of reported stress for women. Other studies have found that social sharing of both positive and negative events can be associated with emotional well-being and that women tend to share their emotional experiences with a wider range of people than do men.